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The Clergy

The clergy is the name given to people who work for the Church - they include priests in each village or town, bishops who control each diocese (region) of the Church, cardinals who were the most important people in the Church, and finally, the pope. Of course, there were also monks and nuns who led separate lives in monasteries and convents.

The higher ranks of the Church were made up of people from the noble families. Bishops were very powerful because they collected taxes, told peasants what to do and controlled large areas of land. There was often a big dispute over who would become bishop of an area because of this power. In some countries, such as France, the king had the right to appoint bishops and he sold the title to the highest bidder. In other countries the pope appointed bishops. He would often appoint his allies if a particular king was arguing with him.

Many of the priests had to conduct church services in more than one village. They were paid for each church they ran and received very little money if they only controlled one church. They had to conduct services in Latin and read from the Bible, in Latin. Often they were merely peasants and could not read in any language, let alone Latin. They often had to try to memorise the services. If the service lasted two to three hours they would forget whole parts of it.

The priests were responsible for marriages, funerals and baptisms, as well as acting as a social worker. In some areas the priests were looked up to as holy and righteous people. Other priests were seen to be ignorant peasants.

The Secular and Regular Clergy

(A) The Secular (or worldly) Clergy, so called because they were responsible for the organisation and control of the spiritual lives of the laity in the everyday world. They included the priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals. All, of course, under the strict control of the pope.


The Pope









(B) The Regular Clergy so called because they lived in accordance to very strict rules, were, are still are, divided into two sub-groups:

The monastic orders (monks) including the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Carthusians and the Trappists. The members of these orders dedicated themselves to a life of meditation and prayer for the absolution (forgiveness) of all the sinners of the world. They lived in isolated, closed communities (monasteries) after taking strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

N.B. All Catholic clergy took these vows but the monastic orders added to them. For example, Trappist monks had to vow total silence. In other words, vow not to speak a word for the rest of their lives.

A monastery, under an abbot was usually the largest landowner in an area and was, therefore, very wealthy. However, the monks themselves were usually without any money or possessions. By the 16th century, many people became critical because monks appeared to be breaking their vows. In England, King Henry VIII inspected the monasteries to find out what was going on.

The orders of friars, including the Augustinians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, dressed like monks but their role was quite different. they were "mendicant" clergy, travelling from village to village and from town to town, totally dependent on the charity of the people for their food and lodging. They preached the Gospel and provided spiritual comfort to people in their homes. They were also more independent than the other forms of clergy and were only responsible to the pope.

A certain rivalry developed between orders of friars and, particularly, between the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Whereas the Franciscans, though still very Catholic, were open to new ideas and favoured tolerance, the Dominicans adhered totally to the teachings of the Catholic Church without question.


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